MONTGOMERY, Ala. - When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey took her oath of office January 14, she publicly committed to fixing some problems throughout the Alabama Department of Corrections, specifically infrastructure issues.
"The poor conditions of our prisons create a risk to public safety and are placing a heavy burden on taxpayers," Ivey said in her address. "The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution. As your governor, I plan to do so. We are revitalizing our statewide corrections system by replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities. This effort will ensure that Alabama stays committed to statewide prison reform, and we will be announcing more detailed plans in the coming days."
The problems within Alabama's prisons are not just known to the governor, but certainly to people who work for, and with, the Alabama Department of Corrections. In an email sent to WHNT News 19, Bob Horton, a spokesman for ADOC, acknowledged issues with overcrowding, under-staffing and prison violence.
"There is a direct correlation between the level of prison violence and the shortage of correctional staff in an overpopulated prison system with limited resources for rehabilitating offenders," Horton said. "The proliferation of drugs and criminal activity inside prisons also contribute to an increase in violent incidents."
The Southern Poverty Law Center is also working alongside ADOC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program to meet constitutional standards of care for inmates. WHNT News 19 initially interviewed Maria Morris, SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney, about the mental health shortfalls inside the prisons. But, Morris also offered some perspective for those who are not incarcerated.
"There's a lot of problems and they all interact with each other and kind of exacerbate each other," Morris said. "One of the really important things to remember that almost all of these people are coming home, they're coming back to the community."
The conditions inside the state's prisons have been an issue that caught the attention of federal authorities. Back in October 2016, the Department of Justice announced a statewide investigation in conditions in Alabama's male prisons.
The DOJ said it would focus on whether prisoners are adequately protected from 'physical harm and sexual abuse by other prisoners,' whether inmates are protected from excessive force and sexual abuse by the staff and whether the prisons provide sanitary, secure and safe living conditions.
“The Constitution requires that prisons provide humane conditions of confinement,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Alabama in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that the state’s facilities keep prisoners safe from harm.”
Currently, there is an emphasis on improving, and even constructing, new prisons in Alabama. According to our news partners at AL.com, Governor Ivey said her administration is discussing two avenues to plan to build three new men's facilities. The paths are issue bonds to pay for the builds or a lease agreement with private companies for the construction.
"One of the biggest obstacles preventing our team from overcoming our challenges is the prison system’s outdated, outmoded, and overgrown infrastructure," Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in an opinion/editorial release in 2017.
In November 2016, an analysis on all state prisons found three proposed men's prisons would cost $525 million. This is about half of what the commissioner estimated the cost back in 2018 when Alabama legislators put a temporary hold on a $10 million contract between the state Department of Corrections and a company that could analyze prison needs and design new facilities.
At this time, the commissioner said building new prisons would be a better use of taxpayer dollars than putting more money into older prisons. The governor said she expects to put out her plan for prison construction within the coming days.